Airline food can represent a uniquely perverse pleasure for the gourmet. Karen Krizanovich considers some of her favourite mile high meals.
"When I flew Aeroflot in the 1970s, we were given the choice between an apple or a chessboard, yes - chessboard. Tea service came in a big teapot, the nearest you could get to a samovar, made from burnished tin."
Anybody can buy an airplane ticket. Everybody takes too many photos. What's really interesting in travel is detail, those smaller experiences within the bigger journey. So, if you want to entertain me at a party, tell me tales of old Aeroflot, of days when travelling was exciting, strange and exotic and how you ended up wearing half a seat belt while the woman next to you breastfed her 12 year old. Tell me about the teapot, the bad coffee, the what-is-it in clingfilm. I want to know.
Adventure is embedded in food. Wherever I go, I like to eat what the locals eat - pimp bugs in Thailand, fertilised duck eggs in Cambodia. But even before you land, the airline food is a little introduction to your destination's cuisine culture. Nothing says "I'm in Africa" like being served a brightly coloured juice drink made from pine nuts and a hermetically-sealed smoked sausage as you fly over the Kalahari, trying not to notice the spelling errors on the airplane engines. Similarly, you get junk food with local tang on many of the domestic hops across the United States - pizza near Chicago, etc. When I used to fly Air India from Chicago to London, it tasted like I'd gone via Mumbai. (The captain running out of the cockpit, yelling, "I'll break your head" to a passenger opening the outside door was a piquant moment. I asked the stewardess if everything was OK; she said, "No!")
Nothing packs a hit quite like airline food. First class, business or economy, it's the fancy form of throwing some fish to the seals - it's quick and easy and most of the things in the cage will eat it. It's not about nourishment. It's about stopping a riot three hours into the flight. The ever-present bread roll? That's the airborne version of stuffing penitentiary inmates with calming starch.
This is from a purely empirical standpoint. I've thought long and hard, poked around a bit and decided that telling you more about airline food is not going to enhance the experience of it. Pace the adage, "If you love sausages, don't visit the factory." Understanding the intricacies of cook-chill (see? Knowledge creeping in already...) will only increase the sense of helplessness. I'm not embracing ignorance - think of it as horror management. When you fly, banality can be fascinating. (Proof: inflight magazines.) Figuring out what is on that tray and putting it in your mouth could be as entertaining as Cirque de Soleil. You don't need to know how they sew their leotards.
Along with military chow and school grub, airline food is right up there with hospital food in infamous reputation terms. This is because, traditionally, none of them are good at their jobs. When you're ill, good food is as important as medicine. Airline food has no such morality. "Smarty pants, you're so important and in a hurry - what's wrong with the bus? - and for the next 8 hours you are ours." We can't make a radical change in all airline food without great cost and consumer experimentation, i.e. chewing then spitting it out. So, 99% of the time, we're sort of stuck with what we get.
There is also an unspoken expectation that you will eat what there is. A federal Sky Marshal, crisscrossing America undercover during the hijack scares of the 70s, reported that stewardesses implored him to eat because it looked strange that he didn't. No matter how long the flight, he never touched a tray. "Some of it is edible, but it's not food that I like," he says. He's a member of that tribe who are so disciplined (we call them "show offs") they eat nothing. I admire the rich inner life of these individuals. They slap on their flight shades and sleep, superior to people like me who need to amuse themselves with a dessert shaped like an eyeball. I've tried to make the best choices in airline food. I've ordered every special type of meal offered - I didn't even know what Jains ate - and rarely has it been as good as the normal stuff everyone else was served. I suffered beef/chicken/pasta envy.
It's only fun to hear the coffee was so bad it "came right out of the engine" if it didn't happen on your flight. If you get nice food on a plane, it is because someone's made a huge effort - and there's your trouble. It shouldn't be a huge effort. Happily, better food is becoming more and more common. There are pockets of quite nice meals served in the air and credit the Far Eastern and South East Asian airlines for consistently serving tasty things. According to one world traveller, this is because tiny-bite cuisines like to fly. "Good airline food lends itself to small portions," he says. "The Thai food you could have is not like a steak. It is automatically bite-sized, smaller, so it seems you are getting the real thing. If you get a steak, you're getting a 'mini me'."
According to blogs and review sites, airlines are wising up to inflight food that doesn't jaundice our journey. The proof came to me on a Qantas flight from Sydney to London where I was served the best soup. This was not the best soup in the air. It was the best soup ever. I emailed the airline and got the recipe. I've made the same soup at home and guess what? It tastes just as good as it did in the air. So, you see, despite all the complaining, all the jokes, all the reviews and blogs and that half of a seat belt you had next to the lactating woman, you just never know. Travelling may or may not be an adventure, but airline food is always a sucker punch.
Karen Krizanovich is a writer, radio and TV broadcaster and movie script editor. She is also a trained voice-over artist, specialising in chocolate voices, robot/Vulcan, American regional accents and anything throaty.